Sustainable Development and Nature: The Social and The Material


Correspondence to: Michael Redclift, Department of Geography, King's College London, Strand Campus, London WC2R 2LS. Email:


In this paper we argue that one way of viewing the relationship between sustainable development and nature is to explore the extent to which human-made capital can be substituted for nature (‘natural capital’). It is suggested that this substitution/replacement exposes societies to different risks and uncertainties. Our point of departure is to distinguish sociologically between different ‘natures’, which reflect different levels of human/natural capital substitution and degrees of hybridity: First Nature, Second Nature, Third Nature and Fourth Nature. This approach to sustainable development – through investigating the co-existence of human-made and natural capital, and the effects of this process on risk and uncertainty – is used to explain the vicissitudes of much of the ‘sustainable development’ debate. Focusing on sustainable consumption and ecological modernization, the paper also suggests that regulation theory might help to explain how different environmental policy options are chosen, and the limitations of these options. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.


The concept of ‘sustainable development’ was coined in the 1980s to meet contradictions in policy and practice, and to ‘square the circle’ of resource conservation and economic growth. It was one of several similar concepts, which facilitated the management of divergent policy objectives, in this case environmental protection and economic development.1 However, we seek to argue in this paper that in practice ‘sustainable development’ has been advocated primarily as a means of subordinating nature to economic growth. To meet both environmental and development objectives means responding to dual vulnerabilities – exposure to external risk, occurring in nature and in structural conditions within and between societies (markets, prices, tenure etc.). Sustainable development as a concept has sought to address both kinds of vulnerability. In this paper we argue that one way of viewing the relationship of sustainable development to nature is through exploring the extent to which human-made and natural capital are substitutable and expose us to different risks and uncertainties. This is a question that has long interested political economists and, more recently, ecological economists and other social scientists. Our point of departure, however, is to distinguish sociologically between different ‘natures’, which reflect different levels of human/natural capital substitution and degrees of hybridity. This approach to sustainable development – through investigating the co-existence of human-made and natural capital – provides the theoretical framework of this paper, and is used to explain the vicissitudes of much of the ‘sustainable development’ debate.

In taking this approach we run the risk of reification that comes with using ‘natural capital’ as a category, since capital is a social relation, and the essential process is one in which elements of the natural world are transformed, socially and materially, into commodities and services within the social relations of capital. At the same time we take the view that the material transformations we are discussing cannot be contained within strict boundaries of time and space. In addition, they will also have unintended consequences that are difficult to anticipate. So the forms of nature to which we refer are not to be read diachronically, as sequential historical forms, or as characterizing different geographies. Rather, they are conceptual categories, and it is in this spirit that we have undertaken our analysis.

The first part of the paper sketches out the conceptual distinctions in the relationship between human-induced ‘sustainable development’ and nature. Later we move to explore some ways in which this analysis can be taken forward, and used to illuminate very different iterations of what ‘sustainable development’ has come to represent, particularly as part of a toolkit for public policy.

This paper differs from other attempts to chart the conceptual territory of ‘nature’ that examine the way in which it co-evolves with social forms (Demeritt, 1998; Freudenburg et al., 1995; Norgaard, 1988; Carolan, 2005). Our objective is not to ask, as these authors do, 'how might nature be co-evolving in accordance with broader sociocultural processes (such as capitalism, globalization etc.?)' (Carolan, 2005, p. 395): that is, to 'understand what nature is', first and foremost, and to take the discussion forward by making analytical distinctions between the social and the biophysical, 'while leaving conceptual space for interaction' (Carolan, 2005, p. 395).

The objective of this paper is rather different. It is to examine distinctions between the ‘social’ and nature as material and social territory: to envisage processes through which the very materiality of nature affects the social and vice versa. Specifically, in this paper we examine the process of substitution through which human-made capital (an important element of the ‘social’ in the above literature) has come to replace biophysical nature, by means of technological development, urbanization and global political and economic relations. We argue, however, that ultimately this is a two-way process, since what we term Fourth Nature sees nature re-inserted in an engineered ‘social’ form, primarily through the new genetics.

We begin by distinguishing between the concepts of different ‘natures’, drawing on the approach to ‘critical natural capital’ first employed by mainstream environmental economists such as Pearce (1991) to which we refer as ‘First Nature’. The concept of ‘First Nature’ describes a nature little influenced by human activity, often described in terms of ‘wildness’, and differentiated from social formations.2 The locations of First Nature relate to what ecologists call ‘biodiversity hotspots’ – complex assemblages of species and habitats that are vulnerable to extinction or significant degradation. In these locations there is human activity, of course, and structural processes are at work in the economy, but it is their indirect consequences that have most bearing on the environment. The areas and resources most at risk, and that characterize First Nature, include primary forests, coral reefs and the deep oceans. In these cases very little human-made capital has been substituted for natural capital. Nevertheless, these resources are subject to different forms of degradation and risks to the stability of ecological systems are increasingly common.

What we term Second Nature marks an important difference. In his dialogue The Nature of the Gods, Cicero wrote ‘By our labour… variety and plenty of food are provided…. Out of the caverns of the earth we dig iron…. We cut down trees, and use every kind of wild and cultivated timber…. We sow the seed, and plant the trees. We fertilize the earth…. We stop, direct, and turn the rivers: in short, by our hands we endeavour… to make, as it were, a second nature’ (Cicero, 1877, Book II, LX, emphasis added). Second Nature is conceptually distinct from wild, First Nature: natural capital substitution is higher and human populations are larger and exposed to greater external physical risks. With agricultural production we find permanent, sedentary habitation; economic development is more ‘advanced’, and human populations live in a more sophisticated co-existence with nature, increasingly subject to environmental constraints and security vulnerabilities. Livelihoods are materially influenced by structural processes, directly (rather than indirectly) attributable to human transformation, and increasingly linked to globalization. As the substitution of natural capital by human-made capital intensifies, the natural resource base is depleted and the built environment expands (roads, physical infrastructure, and transport links) at the cost of the ecosystem and of its capacity for renewal and equilibrium. In the discussion of society and the environment, Second Nature becomes a site of hybridity, which, as we have already argued, might be located at different times and places.

Our next conceptual category, Third Nature, occurs where externalities resulting from very high levels of substitution produce serious environmental problems that were not anticipated. In these cases environmental ‘externalities’ pose problems for capital and economic growth. They are the result of very high levels of natural capital substitution: urban infrastructures, sterile living spaces, vertically integrated, intensive agro-industrial production, processing and distribution of homogenized foods and consumption of highly pre-packaged natures and cultures, at a distance, through the new electronic media. In these cases the economists’ ‘externalities’ challenge the stability of the economic system itself, and have to be addressed with urgency. Here, technological changes contribute to shifts in the very conditions of existence, notably through long term processes that prove transformational for the natural environment, particularly climate change. The natural resource ‘crisis’ assumes enormous importance and policies are designed to manage the contradictions of this development – we shift from managing the environment to produce agricultural and mineral commodities to the ‘management’ of environmental externalities. Vulnerabilities here are both to physical processes and to those processes attributable to anthropogenic (human) risk, but in some cases the two are compounded.

The kinds of challenge thrown up by modern urban environments typify Third Nature, since preserving ‘nature’ (conservation) is not the only or even the principal object of concern. In Third Nature, we also encounter a perceived need to limit and manage the effects of high levels of consumption of goods and services on our (anthropocentric) ‘quality of life’ and human wellbeing. The effects of economic activity on the natural environment are subject to more state regulation, in which the choice is not between ‘markets’ and the ‘state’, but rather the mode of regulation which is employed to influence, stimulate or modify markets. In this transition levels of substitution are so advanced that environmental externalities serve to prompt both political movements in ‘defence’ of nature and a raft of policy interventions designed to ‘hold back’ or mediate the full effects of economic growth.

Finally, we can discern a further category. We are beginning to delineate what might be termed a Fourth Nature, opened up by the new genetics. Here nature is fully internalized by design, through a fully developed and embodied ‘production of nature’ (Smith, 2007). This is about the genetic inheritance of nature, and the extent to which it can be manipulated by our growing understanding of genomics. In the case of Fourth Nature human vulnerabilities are no longer external to nature, as part of the lived experience of human societies, but part of the way nature is constituted. We become vulnerable to the as yet unknown consequences of creating and releasing genetically modified organisms, and consuming foods derived from them. At the same time, these biotechnologies are ‘sold’ to us as a panacea for hunger and malnutrition and as the solution to the problems of scarcity and pollution resulting from the prior substitutions of Second and Third Natures. Indeed, the substitution of nature by capital is so advanced in Fourth Nature that biological nature is reconstituted as a new avenue of capital accumulation (Smith, 2007).

This brings us to consider the ways in which this ongoing but differentiated process of substitution is linked to the core ideas in ‘sustainable development’, and its evolving narrative and discursive effects. The intellectual roots of sustainable development, as a discourse for the social sciences and policy, lie in the interlinked economic, social and ecological crises and contradictions of capitalism, yet they have taken on a post-Enlightenment character that is very much at odds with the narrative of modernity. The social sciences, however, have only paid attention to the processes through which nature is substituted in an oblique form. The ‘balance’ at any given time between human-made and natural capital has really only interested a minority of environmental and ecological economists. The concerns of most social sciences have taken this process of gradual substitution as a ‘given’. The hermeneutic social sciences have focused on the social construction of ‘environmental problems’ and addressed quite distinct concerns, such as the limitations and dangers of science, the costs of accelerated personal consumption, depletion of the resources that have fuelled economic and social ‘progress’ and the threats that industrialization has posed to ‘nature’ and the environmental services that underpin human wellbeing.

The emergence and development of the environmental social sciences has clearly been influenced by the concerns and campaigns of modern environmentalism. For example, while the radical environmentalists of the 1970s contended that an ecologically sound society could only be achieved through a fundamental restructuring of the modern social order, their demands for social change and the curtailment of accelerating substitution had very limited impact on the institutions of modern society. Despite the establishment of dedicated environment departments and ministries and the enactment of environmental legislation, the key institutions of modernity that supported the evolving substitution of natural by human-made capital continued to pursue narrowly defined agendas for economic growth. According to Mol (1997), the limited efficacy of these early sustainability measures is reflected in the dominant social theories of the time, which sought to explain continuing environmental degradation and failing environmental reform under ‘regimes of substitution’ that we have characterized as Second and Third Nature. They can equally be seen as facilitating new regimes of accumulation, whose mode of regulation depends on incorporating environmental objectives within institutions whose main purpose remains economic growth under capitalism.

The discussion of the substitution of ‘natural’ by human-made capital has, in some respects, occupied a central place in the development of policy, especially European policy. The policy rhetoric around ‘sustainable development’ has been fostered at the heart of discussions around European integration, even if the practice has often been at odds with the rhetoric. This experience also helps us to structure our discussion of sustainable development and nature.

In particular, we want to distinguish two strands of practice that are increasingly global, although they rest on more or less specific European experience of ‘sustainable development’. The first strand concerns the apparent attempt to green both industry and the consumer, to reduce environmental externalities at source and build a ‘green economy’. This political programme – frequently referred to as ‘ecological modernization’ – has developed largely (but not exclusively) from a base in European-wide integration policy and become lodged in the very fabric of the European Union. It seeks to reduce the throughput of materials and energy in the production of goods and services, and in their distribution and consumption, while allowing producers to remain economically competitive within global markets. This has been a consuming interest, even a defining one, of the European Union, and is of increasing importance at the global level because of trade policy. Understanding and critiquing this process has been the core business of ‘ecological modernization’ as a social theory of ‘environmental reform’ (Mol, 1997), and represents a move away from the prior concern with nature conservation and ecological degradation.

While asserting the centrality of the ‘ecological modernization’ project, we would also draw attention to a second strand of policy, which is more obviously ‘regulatory’, and which preceded most market-based approaches (Gouldson and Sullivan, 2012). This is the role of regulatory mechanisms in shaping productive forces, and therefore the ecological systems with which they interact. At the same time, regulatory practices can be seen as a way in which institutions under capitalism reconfigure themselves, to respond to the unanticipated effects of markets, on similar lines to those suggested by regulation theory in the 1970s (Aglietta, 1976; Boyer, 1990). From this perspective the way in which the state intervenes in environmental policy suggests a crisis in the mode of regulation of capital, and its exposure to new forms of risk (Bourdieu, 2005; Beck, 1992; Jessop and Sun, 2006).

Finally, the discussion of sustainable development today is increasingly concerned with mapping and critiquing post-carbon futures in the context of anthropogenic climate change. As such, we suggest that it draws on the rich tradition of utopian imaginaries, as well as the ‘lived experience’ of groups of people, as a guide to the creation of whole, alternative societies (Kumar, 1987). Such approaches would facilitate a larger role for sustainable development thinking within the intellectual and material worlds that are developing around alternatives to long-term carbon dependence.

Third Nature: Ecological Modernization

The 1980s and 1990s saw a progressive increase in policies associated loosely with neoliberalism: specifically, the withdrawal of the state from many of its traditional roles and the creation of new markets for goods and services traditionally supplied by the non-market sector. At the same time, and not surprisingly, environmental policy incorporated much of the neoliberal agenda (even while environmental groups often expressed vocal opposition to it). The notion of ecological modernization came to refer to efforts to reduce the throughput of materials and energy per unit of output of goods and services. The policy objective was to seek, in effect, more technological efficiency while not constraining economic growth. The environmental measures, which paralleled economic deregulation and the development of new markets, took several forms.

First, attempts were made to internalize what economists identified as environmental ‘externalities’ in products and services: that is, the usually unintended consequences of economic activities that bore heavily on the environment but that remained un- or at least undervalued in the market: the vulnerabilities experienced in Second and Third Nature. In the context of emerging debates around the notion of ‘sustainable development’, within Europe especially, this process came to be referred to as ‘ecological modernization’. This was viewed as a competitive strategy by the European Union, seeking to give member states a competitive advantage over the United States and any newly developing rivals in Asia. The approach sought to use the tax system to reduce energy and material throughput and create a ‘win–win’ scenario, promoting efficient technology and reducing environmental damage. It was envisaged that in the future trade arrangements would also take account of ‘embodied carbon’, and the first nations to acknowledge this would prove to be the trade ‘winners’. Some of the more imaginative policies of the European Union sought to facilitate this in the 1990s.

Second, carbon markets, both within industries and, more importantly, between countries, were an important new development, which in some senses acted to formalize and at the same time disembed and globalize the process of substitution. These new markets represented a challenge for entrepreneurship and new opportunities for investors, and required very little government action. Carbon markets were thus popular among devotees of free-market economics and neo-liberal environmentalism (Simms, 2005). Unlike the earlier interventions that relied on the tax system, carbon markets not only avoided the double burden on industry implied by the need to invest in clean technology and pay green taxes, but also created a new source of value and the potential for profit. It is worth adding, perhaps, that a decade ago few paused to consider what might happen when production contracts and the price of carbon, like that of other traded commodities that are oversupplied, drops significantly.

The conversion of governments to a more or less uncritical view of markets was even more evident in the international efforts to ‘protect’ biodiversity. The biodiversity regime, expressed in the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000), demonstrated a shift from a focus on the loss of species diversity, and thus the loss of complex ecosystems, to a focus on the preservation of genetic diversity, where the principal gains were in the pharmaceutical industries and agriculture (Paterson, 2008). The almost imperceptible shift was from nature conservation to nature as commodity and the way was paved for the more radical substitution that we have characterized as Fourth Nature. The main opposition to the neo-liberal ‘nature as commodity’ discourse came from groups – principally non-governmental organizations – that argued that marginalized people had rights in nature, which governments and the pharmaceutical industry ignored. However the industry lobby won much of the political and ideological struggle, insisting that ex situ conservation in gene banks should be treated as equivalent to in situ conservation in ecosystems. In effect, the pharmaceutical companies improved their access to plant genetic diversity, under new international regimes of trade and intellectual property.

The third element in the redesign of environmental policy was the creation of the ‘consumer-citizen’, the idea that individuals could best express their preferences for goods and services through their own (and their household's) personal consumption. In parallel with the development of cleaner technology, more efficient production and carbon markets came the concern with sustainable consumption and the greening of lifestyles, suggesting that the vulnerabilities associate with Third Nature could be addressed through personal consumption decisions. Partially as a result of their insufficient understanding of the link between social structures and consumer habits, and the awkward politics of wealth redistribution, governments came to favour consumer encouragement to live more sustainably and to reduce household ‘footprints’. This implied the design of new ‘lighter’ consumer goods, evocations to act in more environmentally responsible ways, and an accent on ‘lifestyle’ and the consumer, at the expense of livelihoods and citizenship.

Among the most important analyses of the European programme of ecological modernization are those of European environmental sociologists, the most important of whom are Arthur Mol (1997, 2010) and Gert Spaargaren (Spaargaren and Mol, 1992), whose approach has built upon and developed earlier work, notably that of Huber (1982) and Jänicke (1986). Together with others, these scholars have established and developed the social theory of ecological modernization, which Mol suggests should be ‘seen as the social scientific interpretation of environmental reform processes and practices at multiple scales’ (2010, p. 63).

Mainstream scholars of European ecological modernization view policy innovation and changing production practices and consumption habits as evidence of the ecological restructuring of modern society and the delinking of economic growth from environmental degradation. The most optimistic positions consider these changes as marking significant progress towards a rejuvenated, if scarcely recognizable, type of materials ‘light’ capitalism (Lovins et al., 2000). At the same time, Huber (1982) has cautioned that industry's efforts to increase productive ‘efficiency’, even when combined with a shift in consumer behaviour away from excess and towards ‘sufficiency’, is unlikely to address adequately our current environmental and human predicament. While he identifies good reasons for adopting and pursuing both these courses of action, he also suggests that a third discourse is required, that of ‘consistency’. For Huber, consistency points towards an industrial metabolism that is consciously consistent with nature's metabolism, and will require fundamental technological innovation, rather than simple, incremental efficiency gains. From the perspective of those most critical of market-based environmental valuation, however, ecological modernization might, with hindsight, be better understood as a ‘managed senescence’ of the eco-illogical fossil carbon economy developed under industrial capitalism (Woodgate, 2010; Smith, 2007; Bellamy-Foster, 2010).

The neoliberal trajectory that characterized the 1980s and 1990s was viewed by many as a liberating model. It removed ‘government’ as the engine of economic momentum, and opened up activities to the market, or introduced ‘shadow’ markets, which encouraged firms and individuals to behave as if markets operated, in the process not merely shifting economic activities to the private sector but implementing a new logic for the public sector (a sector that, despite neo-liberal rhetoric, continued to grow in most developed countries). The new policies also deregulated financial flows, facilitating the free movement of finance and reducing the burden on capital through lowering barriers to growth such as corporate taxes. The model also removed many of the politically negotiated rights that organized labour had gained in the developed world, and reconfigured the frontiers of the ‘welfare state’. Among the existing capitalist economies, only those of the European Union sought to combine this market-based model with measures in favour of labour, consumers and environmental protection, producing a hybridization of neoliberal thinking and traditional welfare support.

Rethinking the role of the state and the consumer in economic growth held importance for the environment, too. The new policy emphasis, especially within the European Union, was on moving from the management of capitalist growth along more environmentally sustainable lines, towards enabling private actors to pursue their interests while simultaneously promoting sustainability. Policy increasingly sought to structure incentives for environmentally beneficial behaviour, believing that the ‘agency’ of the individual, if it existed at all, consisted of a kind of ‘consumer-agency’, rather than the battery of roles that constituted ‘citizenship’. This wider view of the multifarious roles performed by the ‘citizen’ had been pioneered by social democratic (and some Christian Democrat) governments. However, as Redclift (2010) has argued, the new model envisaged the individual as reducible to their ‘consumer self’, and this applied as much to the way environmental externalities were treated as to the loosening up of credit and (in the case of some economies) the burden of equity-based housing.

These changes came at a cost, of course. The movement of neoclassical economics into more mainstream environmental policy left several concerns at the margin of policy and politics. The challenges of reducing material throughput and reducing carbon emissions converted environmental policy into a technical question, effectively sidelining the agency of social movements and their pursuit of alternative social and cultural objectives. Unlike the position in the first half of the 20th century, for the discursive politics of the decades after 1980 the term ‘utopia’ was treated pejoratively, as irrelevant and out of phase with the realities of the ‘enabling market’. The apparent need to reassure publics that the impending environmental dystopias were not inevitable seems to have led policymakers to emphasize individual contributions over collective political action.

The underlying assumptions of the dominant model transposed the supposed ‘barriers’ to market freedom and choice in the formal economy to the new terrain of environmental and sustainability policy. Policy interventions assumed that similar barriers, this time ‘social’ rather than economic, existed to people acting more sustainably in everyday life (Redclift and Hinton, 2008). It was suggested that these obstacles were constituted by habit, poor education, a lack of information and cumbersome state bureaucracy, and could be rectified by policy. The solution was to introduce more choice of products and services, new ‘greener’ technologies and market opportunities that could maximize utility while placing more responsibility on the individual. The individual consumer could regard herself as ‘greener’ through encouragement or, in the current political argot, ‘nudging’: that is, being leant upon by government to behave more appropriately. This solution rendered the individual as a consumer, rather than a fully reflexive citizen, and her environment solely in terms of products and services, rather than social and ecological processes or structures.

At the same time science was viewed as part of the solution, rather than the ‘problem’, confronting societies threatened by climate change. The decisions were only obliquely political, while technical solutions held the promise of removing politics from environmental policy entirely. As demonstrated in the Stern Review (Stern, 2007), we were embarking on what has been termed a ‘post-political’ future (Swyngedouw, 2009): one in which consensus science came to exercise normative authority, and political judgements about the way resources and rights to them were distributed could be left to (supposedly) independent rational discussion.

Third Nature: Sustainable Consumption and Regulation under Economic Austerity

These developments in the economy and in public policy raise some awkward questions for our understanding of sustainable development and the policy discourses that have characterized the field. In this paper we have drawn on the substantial literature that suggests there is still considerable confusion over the most effective way of achieving more sustainable development, and several of the assumptions about consumer behaviour – such as the role of an ‘information deficit’ about the environmental costs of products and services, and the targeting of personal responsibility for policy solutions as being sufficient to lead to voluntary behaviour change. Remarkably, these assumptions are largely untested and circumstantial. Whilst policymakers and pundits alike tend to measure progress towards sustainable development in terms of the numbers of purchases of particular ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ commodities, where success is framed in terms of market share, an alternative discourse suggests that sustainable development involves frugality, thrift and a kind of voluntary austerity. If this is indeed the case, then a focus on economic growth – low carbon or otherwise – may still be unsustainable.

Policies that suggest that sustainable development can be achieved through making consumption more sustainable are difficult to square with the fiscal austerity that has characterized many of the ‘advanced’ economies since 2008. Even prior to the banking crisis of 2008/9, the level of indebtedness had increased, in both private households and in the public domain. In a society in which increased equity in housing seemed assured, and borrowing was easy, individuals were prepared to buy property to rent and re-mortgage their homes with apparent alacrity. The rise in disposable income, for most consumers, was also driven by increasing female participation in the labour force, facilitating wider social participation for the majority (but not all) of the population (Goodman and Redclift, 1991). This model of rising consumption had also been associated with longer working hours, as Richard Titmuss had argued much earlier, to explain the apparent rise of the ‘affluent society’ in the late 1950s (Titmuss, 1962).

The ‘sustainable development’ that societies strove for in the boom years before the financial crisis of 2008 is in marked contrast with what followed. In one interpretation, the economic crisis since 2008 is a result of a failure in the ‘regulationist’ policies with which the national state, in much of Europe and the United States, managed demand. An approach from regulation theory helps to explain the ability of capitalism to stabilize itself in the 1970s and 1980s, but might also help explain the illusion of ‘stability’ during the long boom of the last decade (Aglietta, 1976; Boyer, 1990; Jessop and Sun, 2006). The model of growth at the dawn of the 21st century was one of enhanced personal consumption on the basis of negotiated debt, not financial stability. It leads us to question models of sustainable development that rest on enhanced consumption of new products and services, and might suggest we look instead towards ‘sufficiency’, including the experiences during World War II and its aftermath, for historical lessons in how to maintain economic activity while using resources more sparingly (Redclift and Hinton, 2008; Urry, 2003) and pursuing the goal of making our getting and spending activities consistent with the capacity of nature to produce and renew the environmental goods, services and conditions that underpin human wellbeing. We concur with Huber (2000) in arguing that, even when combined with efficiency in production, sufficiency as a principle for guiding consumer behaviour is insufficient to turn the tide of 21st century mass consumption. What is required is a conscious attempt to bring our social/industrial metabolism back into line with nature's metabolism, a closer approximation to the models in nature that provided the impetus for Second Nature, such as the sustainable farming systems adopted by societies aware of their impact on their and others’ environments.


In this paper we have argued that different forms of risk and environmental insecurity correspond to different degrees of substitution of nature by human-made capital, delineating a continuum from the First Nature of relatively ‘wild’ or ‘wilderness’ areas, through the Second Nature of agricultural landscapes that Cicero conceptualized more than 2000 years ago, to large scale urban settlements in industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Finally, we suggested a Fourth Nature, in which ‘nature’ has been engineered in the laboratory and reinserted within the biological cum social human individual. Sustainable development can, then, be seen as a comprehensive term that obscures different societal responses. These responses range from oppositional social movements, in both the developed and less developed countries, to the incorporation of latent criticism into new ‘environmental’ policy, the process to which Mol and Spaargaren refer as ‘environmental reform’.

We have suggested above that the growing concern to measure and value environmental externalities, goods and services, most evident in carbon markets and new low-carbon technologies, has been prompted by an enhanced awareness of biodiversity loss, resource depletion, ecosystem collapse and climate change, which we have characterized as Third Nature. These new forms of policy intervention, and their accompanying technologies, which were discussed under the rubric ‘ecological modernization’, involve forms of political compliance or co-optation. Nature takes on social authority as the ‘environment’, while governments seek behavioural changes and new forms of consumption. A recursive loop thus transforms the unintended consequences of consumption into new forms of consumption itself: green goods, commodities and even banks. Valuing nature under threat, and identifying the need for dematerialization, leads to new material goods and processes. At the same time there are unforeseen consequences: on the one hand the global financial crisis, in both public and private debt, has given way to austerity policies far removed from the affluence (in the North) that gave sustainable development much of its appeal. At the same time other social processes can be observed, in which social movements such as the ‘Occupy’ movement mount opposition to the effects of capital's depredations by invoking the idea that global sustainability is being sacrificed on the altar of market dogma.

Finally, it is worth making a tentative link between these on-going changes, often inchoate from the point of view of the consumer/citizen, who may simply view them as part of everyday life, and the new forms of utopianism that have grown from global environmental conflicts. There is a process of disenfranchisement of large groups of people, in both North and South, faced by alienation from nature, and the means (‘labour/work’) with which it is transformed. Increasingly social ‘marginality’ or ‘exclusion’ is not simply ascribed by societies, but challenged by those disaffected by the ‘post-political’ consensus. The ‘utopian’ response has re-emerged just as ‘sustainable development’ has turned into a thinly disguised mantra for economic growth, and this growth has proved, in turn, something of a chimera.

The recognition of what we have lost in the course of economic ‘growth’, notably the equilibrium mechanisms that had enabled nature to be resilient in the face of risks and shocks, has led to a shift from individualistic and anthropocentric to more collective, bio- and eco-centric positions. There is a reassertion of nature's primacy at a time when living standards are under threat from government austerity and low economic growth. Might sustainable development, as a concept, be subject to renewal, then, in the hands of different political forces and forms of political expression? Is ‘sustainable development’ being reinvented to accommodate the new exigencies of financial crises and an ecological Armageddon?

  1. 1

    Other, similar concepts are ‘zero’ or ‘no’ growth, steady state economy and ‘ecological modernization’.

  2. 2

    Note that Carolan, in his critique of Bhaskar's critical realist approach to nature, and his call to 'bring nature back in', uses the term ‘nature’ in quite a different way from the one we are proposing (Carolan, 2005). He distinguishes between Nature (upper case) in referring to the physical laws of nature, nature meaning the meeting of both biophysical and social phenomena and 'nature' (inverted commas) to refer to discursive constructions alone. In this paper what we refer to as First, Second, Third and Fourth Natures all correspond to Carolan's nature, with no attempt made to distinguish ‘purely’ discursive constructions of the term. Our definitions are prompted, rather, by the evolving tradition in environmental economics, which highlighted the role of capital substitution of nature (Pearce, 1991).